Riding: Grand Prix Day

The day begins early, shortly after 5:30 am. The horses are beginning to wake and stir in their stalls. Soon, it will begin like every other day. My daughters are quiet during the ride in, studying their checklists and going over what they want to accomplish in their minds. Horses are animals with a set routine. Whether at home, or on the road at the show, it is about keeping with the daily schedule.

Though it seems quiet, the main horse barn is humming with activity. The barn crew is finishing their deliveries of stall supplies; the riders are slowly filtering in. Those riding in the first events of the day are the most busy preparing their gear and horses. Arriving at the barn, it is straight to work for my girls. The first order of business is a check of their horses and their stalls, followed by setting up breakfast. The breakfast is precise in what they are fed. It is a mix of ultra-premium hay, rolled oats and scientific horse feed, with the balance varying slightly for each horse. After getting them started on breakfast, along with fresh water, the girls check on the stall supplies they’ve ordered. And, so begins another day.

morning workout: Elizabeth and SAM on a circle exercise, the froth normal (CHP, Jul 2017)

In the early morning workout, a sense of the day begins to develop between my girls and their horses. Of importance is the energy, prompting and workout level. Though it is Grand Prix day, it is keeping it like any other day. Preparing for the event tempers the anticipation and expectations. They become an X-factor of sorts as the marquee event draws closer. No other event is greater, or better, than the Grand Prix. It features the best riders with the best horses in attendance, with a few riding it as their only event. Yet, the competitiveness is even. Anyone riding the GP can win. Deborah often compares it with the NFL maxim: “On any given Sunday …

During the morning meeting, the GP riders are briefed on the day’s schedule, weather and practice windows. With the event always scheduled for the late afternoon, or in the evening, knowing the schedule aids them in managing their time and routines. The most important part of the meeting is the blind draw for starting positions, with a preference for a later position. Between the short workouts and walkthroughs, there is much to do during the day. Though the downtime is very little, it is keeping the day very relaxed and routine. In their workmanlike approach, my daughters can often be found studying their practice video and leafing through their notes. It is staying with what they know, trusting in themselves and their horses.

finishing touches: flora and greenery for the 1.40 m Grand Prix course (CHP,  Jul 2017)

It is when the GP course build begins, a quiet anticipation grows among the riders. Having kept themselves busy for most of the day, they are ready to ride the event. The course length and its difficulty depends upon how the designer wants to challenge the horse and rider. Once the course build has been certified to specification, it becomes available for a walkthrough inspection by the riders. With a printed copy of the layout in hand, the riders will walk the course with an eye on every physical feature – from fence height and distances to the firmness of the footing material to sight lines.

the walkthrough: former RRC teammate and mentor, Megan (r), with her riding student Roxanne making her GP debut (CHP, Jul 2017)

While several riders will walk the course with their trainers (instructors), others will make it a solitary walk. My daughters walk the course together, quietly discussing their observations among themselves. They are also writing additional notes and observations. After completing their walkthrough, the girls secret themselves and talk about the best way to attack the course – which riding line is the safest, which one is the most aggressive, and which one is the best.

Once they finish their course analysis, my daughters tightly focus their remaining preparations on the event. It is their time to be alone in their thoughts, planning and visualizing their rides with no diversions and no distractions. The schedule and weather delays are taken in stride.

the golden boy: Mr. Ed receiving a perfect groom from Elizabeth before donning his show tack (CHP, Jul 2017)

A final brushing of their horses is a calming time between my daughters and their horses. They too are aware of the event before them. Soon, they will be dressed in their best show tack. The ground work is precise and methodical. Every hair, horse and rider, perfectly in place. My girls, absolutely perfect in their Grand Prix clothes.

It is time to be a champion.

the championship look: Captain Andrew Evan Stedman and Deborah (CHP, Jul 2017)

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The Season Begins

The weeks of practice have made them excited for the season to begin. They are ready. The riding has been fast, precise and crisp. It is disciplined. Trish has observed they are riding in mid-season form. “They are that good,” she has said.

saddle point-of-view: following Tara’s lead on Cameron, Deborah’s view onboard Comet (RRC, May 06 2017)
South Platte River on the left

The girls, along with Trish and Mark, are viewing this season as one of great challenge. Last season was a very good one, and resulted with an appearance at the Las Vegas National Horse Show. The expectations for them are likely greater this season if not higher.

My girls have said they are equal to the challenge for this season. There are no doubts, just riding. Everything else will follow.

pure love: Deborah and Captain Andrew (Jul 2016)

Beginning their 2017 season today, my daughters will once again start in Texas.

Photo credit – the saddle point-of-view is courtesy of Deborah.

“Ride now, ride forever”

 

A Rider’s Impressions

Written by Elizabeth Ksenia Ramos

The week of everyday practice went well, but we probably could have ridden it better. Though we got off to a non-start with some sketchy winter weather on the first day, we kicked it into gear on the second.

Practice, Day Three: Trish waiting on us (RRC, Mar 26 2017)

Preparing for a season is more than shaking off the rust and losing the bad habits picked up during the off-season. It is about riding with more precision and speed, but also with discipline. While we push ourselves to be better riders, we are careful not to push our horses too hard and ask them to do things they may not be ready to do. Horses, while they aim to please, they, too, need to ease back into the stepped-up pace and difficulty.

The note-taking has been thorough as have our back-and-forth discussions among ourselves and with Trish. She is quite pleased at how well we are riding, and how well our horses have responded to the increased tempo and practice. “You’re showing mid-season form. Can’t ask for anything more.” While her words are very complimentary, Trish knows we have areas that need some work and polishing.

It would be fair to say we accomplished most of the priorities we had set for ourselves. But, it wasn’t all practice. We had a chance to do a few trail rides despite the snow, fog, rain, and wind.

Tara leading the trail ride on a snowy Saturday morning (RRC, Apr 01 2017)

The last practice session of the week was riding the GP qualifier course from the 2016 Las Vegas Nationals. The aim was to ride a faster time than the best time cleanly. Trish had a new class of young, learn-to-ride students (age 5-7) watch our session. Afterwards, we did a Q&A period with the kids. They were great.

Deborah & Comet: in the start area of the GP practice course 1.50 m (RRC, Apr 01 2017)

About the author

Elizabeth Ksenia Ramos will be graduating from the University of Colorado in May (Class of 2017). She will graduate with an ACS certified Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Machebeuf Catholic High School in Denver in 2013.

She is the most decorated equestrian in Rustler Riding Club history, winning Rider of the Year, Horse of the Year and Regulator of the Year awards on multiple occasions. Additionally, she has won multiple blue ribbons, and other placement ribbons, with Mr. Ed, Lilith and SAM: Secret Agent Man.

Riding Inside The Margins

Written by Deborah Anne Ramos

The heat and humidity had made for a stifling day. Other than a light morning workout, we had the day off from competing. We watched a few junior hunters ride their classes, but our main desire was staying cool and staying in the shade. The plan was to spray off the horses in the late afternoon then have a nice dinner in Des Moines later that evening.

In a semi-shady spot, we settled back to do some people and horse watching. We knew it would be a slow, lazy afternoon. While chatting about nothing in particular for an hour, the PA system came to life asking for the presence of the EMTs and the vet in the main hunter ring. Though it was a short walk from where we were sitting, we stayed put. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t good.

And, it wasn’t. A horse and rider down.

    *     *     *     *

Though it was hoped all would be well in a few minutes, every sense was saying it was a devastating moment. A moment that does not happen too often. We could see the main hunter ring was being cleared, and the audience moved away to another section of the horse park.  Tara understood it all too well.

Jasper: not far from Tara’s thoughts everyday (RRC, May 2004)

The rider, a newly-minted junior from Minnesota, walked past with tears streaming down her face along with her trainer and parents. Most ironic was that we had met and talked with the young rider the day before. She was so excited being at her first AA show, eagerly hoping to do well. Any 14 year old rider would be.

Within a half-hour, we flinched when we heard that sound. Dad didn’t flinch. The horse’s injury had to be most grievous.

  *     *     *     *

The accident had put a damper on the remainder of the day. Everything had an anti-climatic feel.

An early arrival at the horse barn the next morning, we had seen the junior and her parents already packing her gear to head home. They were also getting her other horse ready for travel. Tara walked over and chatted with them for almost 15 minutes. She encouraged the young rider to take her time in returning to the saddle. The saying of “quickly climbing back on the saddle” is easier said than done. And, probably longer to get back into the proper frame of mind to compete again.

They were appreciative of Tara coming over and talking with them. No other riders, except for us, had taken the time to see how they were doing. We wished them well, and hoped to see them once again under better circumstances.

  *     *     *     *

Though riders are noted for their mental and physical toughness, this type of accident is much different. How does one come back from this kind of experience? Not easily. Tara had her own experience, but says she is still very much a work in progress.

Mark told Tara, when she returned to riding, it was okay to be unsure. It will take time to rebuild the confidence – more riding would lead to more confidence. Of course, the most difficult part of her return was the mental part. Most unavoidable was the second guessing. Tara had to learn how to trust herself and to trust her skills again. The hardest part – Tara giving herself permission to be a rider again.

Tara & Cameron: GP Qualifier – 1.35 M (Texas, May 2014)

In the nearly thirteen years since her accident, the memories remain fresh in the back of her mind. If you watch Tara ride, now, you wouldn’t think she had an accident. Tara doesn’t hold back one bit. She rides fast and crisp, and can ride aggressive lines with ease. And, she is a very disciplined rider. Tara calls it “riding inside the margins”.

With those still lingering memories, Tara says it has made her into a better rider everyday – better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.

Brie: the one who brought Tara back (RRC, Oct 2014)

 

Postscript

We’ve chatted with the young rider from Minnesota, three times, since that day. She has resumed riding, the slow and easy kind, but is very uncertain about riding in competition again. She added, “I would not compete ever again. It’s an easy decision in that regard.”

 

About the author

Deborah Anne Ramos is a fifth-year senior attending the University of Colorado. She will be graduating this coming May with a BS in Biology (Animal Science). She graduated with highest honors from Machebeuf Catholic High School in Denver in 2012.

A highly decorated equestrian with the Rustler Riding Club, Deborah has earned Horse of the Year and Rider of the Year awards with the club. Additionally, she has won multiple blue ribbons, and other placement ribbons, with Comet, Captain Andrew Evan Stedman, and SAM: Secret Agent Man.

“Ride now, ride forever”

Inside The Nationals

“A horse will do anything its rider will ask of it. Not every talented rider will earn an appearance at a national horse show or world cup competition. A rider needs more than talent, drive, dedication, discipline and resources to reach that level. They need those intangibles that takes them to the next level as a rider.”

It is a teaching point Mark and Trish instruct their riding students, regardless of level, in their hunter program. Before reaching that point, every student must learn a skill set featuring strong, sound fundamentals in horsemanship. It is learning to ride and learning to understand a horse – how it thinks, actions and reactions, its response to pressure and stress, and learning its physical limitations. Learn and know all of this, and more, along with knowing how to properly care for one, it is the first step in becoming a true rider.

A national horse show is the one show a rider simply cannot add to their calendar.  Earning a slot in a national is a recognition in the level of riding. Simply, a rider needs a body of work in riding excellence. It is more than a history of riding in AA rated shows and winning blue and red ribbons. It is more than rankings. Equitation matters, consistency matters, and competitiveness matters. Outside the show ring, it is the work in the off-season and preparing for a new season, practice sessions between shows and at shows, and the work off-saddle. It is a commitment to a work ethic, and always working to improve show after show and year over year.

Las Vegas Nationals: the hotel-casino side of the South Point

For five days in November, Las Vegas loses its “Sin City” moniker, replaced by “Show Jump City“. The South Point Equestrian Center becomes the center of the horse world and the FEI World Cup tour in North America. In the local sports, it is the lead story. Names of riders, only known in the jumping world, are mentioned in the same breath with top athletes from other sports.

8:00 pm Saturday, Nov 19

The most anticipated event of the Las Vegas Nationals was almost ready to begin – the FEI Longines World Cup Grand Prix. The field consisted of 33 World Cup jumpers and 7 riders from the USA horse show circuit, all qualified by their finish in the Welcome Jumper Speed Classic held two nights earlier. In the filled arena, the atmosphere and the anticipation was absolutely electric. A few of the top riders have been interviewed about their chances and what it would mean to win the marquee event. They all agree it will be a challenging event. Adding to the challenge, the course design by Guilherme Jorge. Having designed the jumper courses in Rio, he is known for his technically demanding but fair courses.

Though many of the riders are from the USA, it is truly an international field with riders from the UK, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. It is a mix of Olympic riders, seasoned professionals, hot-shots and rookies. If there is one trait the entire field shares, it is their high level of confidence. It is the one sport which each rider knows the field of competition is even, that anyone can win the event.

horse barn: our neighbors from North Carolina

Among the rookies are my three girls, four others from the USA horse show circuit, and four mid-season entrants making their first appearance on the World Cup tour. The rookie group was told they will not appear in the final, official results unless it is a top-ten finish. It is an oddity within the FEI rulebook fine print in how points are awarded and rankings are ordered. Within the rookie group, it is not much of a concern since riding in the marquee event is a reward in itself.

While the stage is larger, the expectations greater, the aim was to treat this event, this ride, like any other event. Each rider goes through their normal routines. Those riding in the top half of the draw were warming up in the arena next door while the Parade of Nations and other pre-event festivities unfolded. The background music ends, a hush settles on the audience, the PA announcer begins his introduction of the event.

A Call to Ride

The first five riders are called. Tara, riding fourth, is ready with her bay, Cameron. A little nervous as always, but with a squeeze of her hand she flashes a smile. They are led down the tunnel to the holding area just off the arena floor. The first rider of the event proceeds directly to the “hole”, the location just before heading into the start area and the in-gate. When its her turn in the hole, Tara mounts up. She is all business. The smiles are gone, the slight nervousness is gone. Her aim, be the leader going into the intermission as the top half of the draw finishes. It is a tall order, but achievable.

Riding into the start area, Tara whispers words of sweetness into Cameron’s left ear. It is a breathtaking, surreal moment. The arena is SRO full, with the scoreboards showing a live close-up of her face and that of Cameron. Below it, her competition number, name and country – 389 Westin, Tara Scott USA. The overhead scoreboard shows the ranking for the event. The first three riders occupy first, second and third place. Places four through eight are blank. The PA announcer, reading her formal introduction and giving Cameron’s formal name, Tara has tuned out everything as she awaits the signal that she may start.

She and Cameron starts. Tara’s eyes are already focused on fence #4 as they clear fence #1. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear. Clearing fence #16, they have a clean ride. It is polite applause from the audience. When Tara’s time flashes on the scoreboard, a few cheers are added to the applause. It is 72.19 seconds, nearly three seconds ahead of the now second-place rider. She has turned heads. Tara knows many more riders are yet to come. It is a course that can be completed in the 72 second range when the girls did their walkthrough earlier in the evening. In riding the course, Tara has learned a few “tells”, information she hopes to relay to Elizabeth and Deborah.

A waiting game, Tara begins to check off names. Two riders are DNF, one retire. Through 12 riders, her time is holding up. Though her nearly three-second lead is being chipped away, the audience is wondering if Tara, a little known rider, has opened the door to an upset in the making. Still waiting in the wings are Elizabeth and Deborah, with Elizabeth scheduled as the second to last rider before intermission. A very sharp WC rider takes the lead at 72.11 seconds.

Two riders later, it is now Elizabeth in the start area. Scantly studying the overhead scoreboard, she has tuned everything out. Her eyes are a study in concentration. Lilith is ready to go. Elizabeth strokes Lilith’s neck to calm her down. A timer issue is causing a delay, but wasn’t too long. They receive their signal they may start.

Elizabeth and Lilith: making 1.50 m jumps an optical illusion

Fast out of the in-gate, Elizabeth quickly clears Lilith over fence #1. With information from Tara, Elizabeth is setting an aggressive riding line by looking farther down the course. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear, fence #5 clear. A few of the other WC riders have taken notice of Elizabeth’s aggressive riding line. She has ridden the course cleanly with Lilith in near-perfect rhythm. The audience is enjoying clean ride after clean ride. When Elizabeth’s time of 71.78 is posted, a rousing round of cheers follow. If this was a baseball game, Elizabeth would have to come out and doff her hat. What she has done is lay down a challenge to the riders yet to come.

Building Anticipation –

During the intermission, the warm-up arena is busy. The first ten riders of the second half of the draw are slowly walking their horses. In the show arena, the excitement is building in the stands. They know the best riders are yet to come, many competitive in this branch of the WC tour. For the moment, Elizabeth is first and Tara is third. A couple of riders complimented Elizabeth and Tara for riding well. The usual questions are asked: where they’re from, whom are they training with, how long they’ve been riding, and do they plan to ride internationally or on the WC tour in North America. Naturally, they ask how good is Deborah. Both say she is very good.

With intermission finishing, the call for the first five riders is given. Leading off this group is Deborah. Every rider following her is a top-tier rider. In the hole, Deborah is boosted up onto her champion, Comet. Riding into the start area, Deborah scans the course. Her expression, pretty but icy.

Like Elizabeth, Deborah is fast out of the in-gate and clears fence #1. She is riding the same aggressive line and looking farther down the course. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear. Coming out of fence #5, a slight bauble but they’re fine. Deborah finishes the course cleanly. She has a feeling the bauble at fence #5 cost them precious time. When her time of 71.73 is posted, Deborah is amazed. Back in the warm-up arena, Elizabeth and Tara high-fives her.

The top riders follow. They are the ones the audience have come to see. The next rider betters Deborah’s 71.73. In the unofficial results, Deborah finished 12th, Elizabeth tied 14th and Tara 16th.

The Mixer

It is well past 11:00 pm, but in true Las Vegas style, a late-night mixer among the riders and fans of the World Cup tour follows. The riders of the moment are the top five finishers – Christian Heineking (GER), Enrique Gonzales (MEX), Tina Yates (USA), Jamie Barge (USA) and Hanna Mauritzson (SWE). The mixer is a little networking, a little socializing and plenty of horse talk.

Autographs are exchanged, including some fans asking for autographs from my girls. They loved seeing them ride so well, and holding their own against the more experienced professionals. When asked if they’ll be riding at the WC level anytime soon, they reply it would be a while, noting plenty of work and gaining experience still needs to be done.

Many of the conversations among the riders are one of mutual respect and admiration. Conversing with my daughters, the more experienced riders were very complimentary of their talent and potential. They encouraged them to stay with their plan and timetable in gaining experience and polishing their skill set.

The best compliment – they belong.

Beginnings

And, it began here …

Deborah visiting with her Auntie Bella’s Ranger Man (Jul 2000)

 

Their love of horses led them into the hunter sport.

Deborah (330) and Elizabeth (183) with their first ribbons won at a club level horse show (Jul 2003)

 

The ribbons are nice. The shows are fun. Their love of horses is enduring.

Deborah, 16, with her champion, Comet (Aug 2010)

 

Elizabeth, 20, with her lovely Lilith (Sep 2015)

 

Embarking on their 2016 season today, my daughters will begin again in Texas.

 

About the photos

All four photos were taken using a Canon FTb 35-mm SLR. The first two photos were made using Kodak T-MAX Professional 100 and the latter two with Kodak Gold (ASA 200).

Inside The Arena

The next rider and horse are introduced. There are a few cheers and shouts, some polite applause. The butterflies experienced while waiting are gone. The moment, the atmosphere, is quite electric. Both rider and horse are focused. A few seconds later, they start the course. The aim is a clean ride, no rails down, with the best time.

Before the ride is the more interesting part. Each rider has their routine. Some will go through visualization exercises, others will watch everything around them. A few will seem to be unaffected. The horses, they seem to be unfazed by it all.

NWSS 2016 – Secret Agent Man (left) and Comet (right) meet one another as Elizabeth and Deborah ride them to the warm-up area

 

NWSS 2016 – Deborah studies her crib sheet on the course layout

 

NWSS 2016 – Tara and Brie await their turn near the start area

 

While much of the riding season is done outdoors, riding an indoor venue has certain challenges. Many indoor venues have seating that brings their audience close to the action. It can cause sensory issues for horses. It is part visual and part auditory. Since horses do not see stereoscopically, their depth of field view is shallow when both eyes are focused in the same direction. They may perceive the audience as being closer than they actually are. The auditory aspect is that sound does not disperse quickly indoors, and most indoor venues are quite live.

With horses and riders having limited indoor experience, the challenges can quickly become issues. Horses that are normally calm in outdoor venues can become more skittish indoors, poorly processing the flood of sensory input. Riders, including experienced ones, can misinterpret the skittishness displayed by their mounts as pent-up energy. This is where a rider needs to thoroughly understand and be knowledgeable of their horse. If not, there is a good chance their competition ride will be ragged at best. Lilith is the one who becomes difficult in an indoor arena. Elizabeth can usually calm her with some gentle strokes on her neck. If Lilith doesn’t settle, Elizabeth gives her more rein to lessen Lilith’s anxiety. In the end, it is all about trust between horse and rider. It has to be unbreakable.

Las Vegas National GP 2015 – trusting Secret Agent Man completely, Elizabeth gives him as much rein he wants

 

Indoors or outdoors, winning ribbons, a top five finish, an oversized cardboard check are nice to have. However, nothing is better than a smiling rider and a smiling horse.

after the blue ribbon: Elizabeth and Lilith (San Juan Capistrano, Jun 2014)

 

Making Of A Champion

Other installments in this series: